20,000 Leagues with Fleischer and Ellenshaw

In August 1999, the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles announced a screening of Walt Disney’s classic film, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, for which visual effects artist Peter Ellenshaw had famously produced some of his most striking visual effects. At the 20000-leagues-postertime, I was working for an online publication and I had recently completed an interview with Peter’s son, visual effects supervisor Harrison Ellenshaw, about a mind-bogglingly extravagant episode of Xena: Warrior Princess produced at Flat Earth Productions. In my quest for material to feed the hungry maw of the Internet, Harrison agreed to put me on the phone with his father, who was then retired and living out in Santa Barbara, painting landscapes of golf courses and seascapes. Peter regaled me with wonderful stories about his friendship with Walt Disney and his fondness for 20,000 Leagues, and much to my delight he also arranged an introduction with the film’s director, Richard Fleischer. Suddenly my little story was snowballing into more than I had expected.

I visited Richard Fleischer at his family home, a Spanish-style mansion in Pacific Palisades that Richard had inherited from his father, animator Max Fleischer, long considered Disney’s rival. Driving up the winding pathway to the house made me feel like Joe Gillis visiting Norma Desmond in her mansion in Sunset Boulevard. I was nervous, but Richard invited me into his study and was very generous in sharing his memories.

Sadly, the story that I wrote based on my conversations with these two gentlemen has long since vanished online, and Peter and Richard are no longer with us, but I dug out my original text and offer it here to celebrate the film’s 60th anniversary.


Of the 50 tough, uncompromising and often brilliant films he directed, Richard Fleischer – Mr. Majestyk, The Boston Strangler, Fantastic Voyage and Soylent Green – is arguably best known for Walt Disney Pictures’ 1954 adaptation of Jules Verne’s classic science-fiction novel, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which sent a generation of moviegoers to bed with nightmare images of a tentacled behemoth with a rolling, staring eye and a snapping, pulsing beak.

For Fleischer, 20,000 Leagues came on the heels of directing over a dozen RKO B-pictures. He initially greeted the project with uncertain feelings. Not only was the big-budget, effects-laden film a change of pace and style, but Fleischer had grown up in another animation camp as the son of Max Fleischer – animation pioneer and inventor of the rotoscope process, Out of the Inkwell and the Betty Boop cartoons.

For matte artist Peter Ellenshaw, Verne’s adventure was equally an odyssey into uncharted waters. Ellenshaw was the new ‘boy wonder’ on the Disney campus, having arrived from his native Britain with new optical technology gleaned from seven years assisting Alexander Korda’s master matte painter, W. Percy Day. Add to the mix Disney’s latest technical masterstroke – the idea of mounting the epic in the new CinemaScope aspect ratio – and Ellenshaw and Fleischer had their work cut out for them. 45 years later, the two master filmmakers looked back on their experience fashioning what has now become a timeless slice cinematic fantasy.

Original concept art for the "Nautilus"

Original concept art for the “Nautilus” from Richard Fleischer’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”

Richard Fleischer, director

“There were two big challenges for me, besides developing the screenplay with Earl Felton. CinemaScope was brand new at the time. I had seen a demonstration of the process six months prior to filming and I thought it was the future of film. The first challenge was to use the screen artistically and creatively, as a storytelling device, not as a gimmick. I also wanted to treat the project in an adult fashion, not as a picture for kids. Secondly, I wanted the film to have philosophical depth and artistic integrity, which was not at that time one of Disney’s strong points, but it was there in Verne’s novel.

“Helping me was Harper Goff, the production designer, who was a true genius and a tremendous artist. He had been working on the design of Nemo’s submarine, the Nautilus, for quite a while before I came on the picture, though he and Walt had their differences on what the sub should look like. Harper prevailed and came up with a design that is so familiar today, that very rough-looking, odd craft with all the rivets sticking out. Walt wanted it to look really sleek and modern, but he relented when he saw that Harper’s gothic look really paid off, both exterior and interior. It really looked like a sea monster, as it was in the story.

The "Nautilus"

The classic design of the “Nautilus” was the brainchild of production designer Harper Goff.

“We built a full-scale exterior of the sub, which was all shot at Fox Lake, and of course we built the interior full-scale. The sub was designed to take advantage of CinemaScope, but it was difficult to work with. We only had one 40mm lens for the whole shoot, so Harper designed the sets so that you could see the whole sub interior at one time – ceiling, walls and floor – to give you that claustrophobic feeling but it was almost impossible for Franz Planer, the cinematographer, to light. There was no place to hide the lights!

“We had various sizes of miniature subs; the largest was five or six feet long. These were shot at Disney in this huge tank they built for the picture, the biggest in Hollywood at the time. We were shooting and lighting into the tank through windows and using underwater lights but we ran into problems in the sequence when they’re going through the underwater tunnel that leads into the inside of the volcano, Vulcania.

“The CinemaScope lens needed a lot of light and we were shooting high speed, which also needed a lot of light, so it got to a point where we couldn’t get an exposure. Harper came up with a great solution. He figured if we could get rid of the anamorphic lens, we could use a much faster lens, however when we projected our image in CinemaScope the sub would be stretched out four times longer than it should be.

“What he did was he designed and built a squeezed-up model of the Nautilus, a chubby sub. It was very odd-looking, two or three feet long, even the rivets were oval, but he figured it precisely so when we shot it with a standard lens and then projected it through CinemaScope, it stretched it out to the perfect proportions. We were able to maneuver it much more easily through our set, and it worked perfectly.

The "Nautilus"

Various sizes of the “Nautilus” miniature were photographed in a large tank at Disney, with shots being further enhanced by Peter Ellenshaw’s extensive matte paintings.

“The squid was the first thing that I photographed, although none of that is in the picture. Everybody that was involved made a terrible mistake because it was written to be shot on a calm sea at sunset, which meant we had no way to hide the cables. The first squid that we shot had almost no motion to it at all, and it was not really waterproof. The stunt men were wrestling the squid arms, pretending the squid was attacking them, although they were attacking the squid, and it was disintegrating. Chunks were falling off because it was filled with kapok and that was absorbing water, getting heavier and heavier, then the cables would snap. Walt Disney saw the dailies and said it looked like a Keystone Cops comedy. He got some of the animatronic geniuses at Disneyland to help out, and that is where special effects supervisor Robert A. Mattey came into the picture.

“I was still worried until the writer, Earl Felton, suggested we rewrite the scene so it takes place in a big storm at night. We have rough seas, wind, waves crashing and lightning flashing and we only see the squid clearly in the lightning. I ran out and told Walt and he got construction going. It cost over a million dollars to make the change and we almost didn’t have enough money to finish the picture because of that, but it was tremendous.

“We still needed cables to move the arms, but we had 35 people controlling the mechanics. It was filled with machinery and pneumatics tubes and hydraulics. It had eyes that opened and closed, a beak that opened and closed. Each arm had three puppeteers to give the motion as it curled and uncurled. A lot of that was helped with the internal machinery, but you still need a human hand to give it emotion, a realistic, life-like motion, not a mechanical movement. It was wonderful stuff.”

Harrison Ellenshaw (left) and James Mason appraise one of the many matte paintings produced by Ellenshaw for "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea"

Peter Ellenshaw (left) and the film’s star, James Mason, appraise one of the many matte paintings produced by Ellenshaw for Richard Fleischer’s “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.”

Peter Ellenshaw, matte artist

“I first worked for Disney in England on Treasure Island. I came to America hoping to work for Walt. Nothing had been set up when I first came out. They were still matte painting onto the original negative – exposing mattes onto undeveloped, exposed production footage – whereas back in England I had learned, on films like Black Narcissus, the technique of making dupe negatives. We were always having terrible weather, so Doug Hague at Technicolor in London had pioneered this process where we could grab matte elements no matter what the weather was like and correct the contrast later. I brought this to America, although I found myself doing all the matte paintings for 20,000 Leagues onto original negative.

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“Walt had an artist storyboard the whole film, then we had meetings to decide which ones would be used as mattes. When Dick Fleischer started working, I was doing sketches for the film, then after two weeks Walt called us all together to see the early miniature footage. It had all been lit from the front and looked like a tin toy sub, but I couldn’t say anything because I was the new boy. When the lights came up, Walt turned to poor Ralph Hammeras, the second-unit miniature effects photographer who had been working in special effects since 1917, and told him to work with me on these paintings I had been doing to show the way I felt it should be lit.

"20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" - matte painting by Peter Ellenshaw

Ellenshaw’s matte paintings were done “the old-fashioned way” by hanging them on eight-foot pieces of masonite in front of the camera.

“I always did conceptual paintings for visual effects, quick sketches in oils, but this led to me working with Ralph until they finished with the miniatures instead of getting on with the actual matte paintings. I was getting behind and I didn’t have time to set up my camera back at the studio, so I decided I would have to paint the mattes the old-fashioned way, hanging them on big eight-foot pieces of masonite in front of the camera.

“I remember hearing they were using CinemaScope at Fox and they were curving matte, paintings to cope with the new perspective. It was imaginary; you just didn’t need it. We painted on a flat surface and we didn’t have any problems. I ended up doing about eight paintings on location out of a total 30 or 40.

"20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" - matte painting by Peter Ellenshaw

Eight of the 30-40 matte paintings produced by Ellenshaw for “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” were painted on location.

“They finally found a place for me to set up my camera in a corridor. I used Ub Iwerks’ process lab camera assistant to work the camera for me, under my instruction. We were really out on a limb. One very complex scene was for a shot where they look through a spyglass into Vulcania and see all the explosives being loaded onto ships.

“We went out to Cucamonga on location and set up the scene and photographed 40 extras three times, making them look like 120. I set up a little tent, put up a black mask, cut away one portion, photographed a portion of the scene, marked the glass, filled that area back up then re-ran the film to exposed the second piece, and did that three times.

“For each exposure, we would run a test, take the film back to the studio and keep it in the refrigerator until we were ready to make tour tests on our painting. During that time, the film continued to expose even though it was sealed in a light-tight box. It was a chemical reaction that slowed down after two or three hours, but when you re-exposed it to the painting you had to rush to get it developed to try to stop it building up again, to equalize the different densities of black. I’m astounded now that I ever tried to get three images on one piece of film for that scene with the painting of the ship, but it worked.”

"20,000 Leagues Under the Sea" - matte painting by Peter Ellenshaw

For a key scene showing explosives being loaded on to a ship, 40 extras were shot multiple times to increase their apparent numbers. The resulting plates were then comped together along with an Ellenshaw matte painting of the ship.

Thanks to Walt Disney Pictures, Harrison Ellenshaw, Allen and Philip DeBevoise.

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb - Cinefex VFX Q&A

In Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, Ben Stiller reprises his role as night guard Larry Daley, and sets out on an international odyssey to restore the powers of a magical Egyptian tablet that brings the museum exhibits to life. Without the tablet’s sorcery to sustain them, the various characters who have become Larry’s friends will return to their former lifeless states.

Shaun Levy returns as director for this third film in the popular series, with Erik Nash taking on the role of production visual effects supervisor. Under Nash’s guidance, the task of breathing life into the film’s many and varied characters fell to a collective of visual effects facilities scattered as far across the globe as Larry and his companions.

VFX supervisors from four of these facilities – MPC, Digital Domain, Cinesite and Method Studios – are here to share their experiences on the film, in this extended VFX Q&A.


Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb - constellations VFX by MPC

MPC – VFX Supervisor, Seth Maury

How many shots did MPC deliver for the show, and how was the work divided between the different offices?

MPC delivered 250 shots in total. I was personally working on the show for about ten months.

The way MPC works is that all asset work – models, texture, rigging and so on – is centralised in London and Bangalore. From look-dev onwards, most of the work then happens in Vancouver. On Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, Bangalore also animated some sequences and lit some shots; MPC are bringing up the Bangalore division to be able to do those things.

How did you get involved with the show?

I got the call back in February 2014, when I was finishing up working on Maleficent. I was really interested in the show, because I like doing character work. Also, my eight year-old son loves the movies. So I said, “I’ll do it!”

So you were primarily involved with character work?

Yes. The first time I met the production VFX supervisor, Erik Nash, he asked, “How’s your fur pipeline?” It kind of cascaded from there.

From the previous movie, we recreated animals including an antelope, a boar, a moose, a mammoth, an ostrich, a rhino and an oryx. For the British Museum scenes, we had a whole host of statues that come to life. Before I came on the movie, the production art department had worked with the British Museum to see what pieces they had that we could make digital versions of. They had some cool little turtles, and some small ceramic elephants that we made life-sized. We also made these pretty metal peacocks – for those we started with the shape of one of the museum pieces, then brought in our own colour and texture.

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In revisiting the original animals, did you repurpose existing assets or create new ones?

We were given the final look-dev turntable models of some of the original characters. We also took a bunch of stills from the previous two movies for reference. A lot of times, that was a good starting point, but essentially we started from scratch, because of the way our character pipeline works and the way we do fur. Technologically speaking, a couple of years between movies is quite a long time. The modelling’s done in Maya and ZBrush. Then we use bunch of in-house plugins that run off Maya.

Did the sculptural nature of the British Museum creatures bring a different set of challenges?

Yes. The first thing we did was faithfully re-create the actual museum pieces, because we didn’t know how much latitude we had per asset. As we went along, we established which ones we could change.

One challenge was that a lot of the pieces – the ceramic elephants, for instance – were just a couple of inches long. When we scaled them up to life-size, we realised the textures didn’t look quite right. So there was a lot of translation from small to large. Erik was great about that. We would show him work in progress – an early model, then stuff at 50% and 75%. He might look at the feet on the turtles, for instance, and say, “Look at the way those feet are carved – if they’d been carved by hand at this size, the edge would be sharper.”

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What about the animation? Presumably a ceramic elephant moves in a different way to a flesh-and-blood elephant?

Ceramic elephant VFX by MPCA lot of the style came from the first two movies. If something was made of a material like ceramic or metal or jade, the director, Shaun Levy, definitely wanted it to move as if it were made out of that material. It’s a fine line between making that work and not having it look like bad animation!

So, for example, while the ceramic elephant moves relatively stiffly, he can swing his trunk and swish his tail, just not with the amplitude or speed that a real elephant would do it. When he takes a step, his foot has a little squash to it, but not as much as a real elephant. So you get a subtle impression of all those things you’re used to seeing in a real animal.

So do your CG models have the same skeleton and musculature as their flesh-and-blood counterparts?

By default, our rigging team put ribcages inside these creatures, so that when muscles fired or when they took a big breath you would see the impression of ribs. I would have to say, “No, actually we don’t want that, because they don’t have that inside.” It was a delicate balance: putting in a certain amount of realism, but taking out what wouldn’t actually be there.

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb - dinosaur skeleton VFX by MPC

Which sequence gave you the most challenges?

At one point in the show, there are five or six shots of the monkey, Dexter, doing an acrobatic aerial silks routine, hanging from two strips of fabric suspended from the ceiling. We created a digital monkey for that. We worked on the sequence pretty much from the beginning of the project to the end.

On-set, they had the cutest little monkey called Crystal. In the first two movies, they’d also used a digital monkey for some medium and wide shots. When we started out, we had the same agenda. We were told: “We’re going to have a digi-double, but you won’t see it in close-up.” But we decided to future-proof the asset, just in case we needed a tight shot, because it’s easier to build it high-res in the beginning than to go back and upgrade everything later.

And did those tight shots actually materialise?

Yes. Sure enough, a couple of those shots ended up being a medium to tight shot on our digital face.

We’d done a photo acquisition of Crystal, and our CG supervisor, Mo Sobhy, worked with look-dev to make the digital double work, refining the textures and so on. It’s that fine line again – mostly in the animation: “How would a real monkey do it versus a human? How can we bring monkey traits to it, but still have it look graceful?” For example, a monkey doesn’t point its toes when it’s hanging upside-down.

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb - constellations VFX by MPC

Can you talk about the planetarium sequence, where all the constellations come to life?

They built a beautiful planetarium set at Burnaby, near Vancouver – I haven’t seen a set that big in quite a while. They built the first floor of the planetarium up to about sixteen feet, and put a huge translight around the outside to re-create the New York environment . Our first job was to top up the set to the roof.

Hanging from the roof is a huge sphere – it looks kind of like Saturn – and then there’s a circular walkway that goes up around the outside, with all the constellations displayed. We re-created that, minus the support structures that hold the sphere up. I feel like we did a really good job with that – it’s pretty seamless.

The next thing we had to do was to bring these five constellations to life: Leo Major, Leo Minor, Orion, Scorpio, and Cancer. As the show opens, these characters made of stars kind of float up in the higher regions of the planetarium and do a little performance.

How did you go about breathing life into what’s essentially just a pattern of stars?

The first reference we got from Erik was a picture of the Orion nebula. He said, “I like the essence of this. See what you can make of it.” So we started playing with modelling some characters, and got the effects team working on what this thing might look like. Is it transparent? Semi-transparent? Do I see nebulae swirling inside? Does it have a hard shell? How well can I read each form, or is it just made up of stars? That went round and round for a while, because it really could be anything.

We put a few different ideas forward, and what we got back from Shaun Levy was: “I really want it to be made of stars.” So Erik and I worked back and forth refining that idea. We ended up with a character that’s pretty transparent, but has a subtle surface impression of nebulae and galaxies. It’s pretty cool, actually.

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Given that Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb is the third film in a series, did it feel as if you were covering old ground?

It’s funny, it didn’t feel like ground we’d covered before. That’s the great thing about Erik and Shaun – those guys were up for fresh ideas and bringing either a new look to something, or having characters act in a different way. I think that permeated the whole project. We didn’t have to just dogmatically match what had been done before.

For me personally, I had a lot of fun with the Dexter acrobat sequence. I’d just come off Maleficent, which has a very atmospheric look, so for the Dexter sequence I enjoyed playing with light beams and spotlights to bring atmosphere to the shots, which I don’t think we’d seen in other parts of the movie. Plus, at the end of the day it’s just silly, and I know my son’s going to laugh at it!


Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb - gold tablet VFX by Cinesite

Cinesite – VFX Supervisor, Zave Jackson

What was Cinesite’s involvement in the show?

We were tasked with the enhancement of the golden tablet – both look-dev and execution – showing the progression of its corrosion and the green glowing edge detail. We also created the golden glowing tablet shots. To do that, we referenced the first two Night at the Museum films to get an idea of the series’ vibe. We also looked at time-lapse footage of various metals corroding, and explored imagery of rust patterns and different types of tarnished metals. We delivered 87 shots over the course of about five weeks.

What happens during the corrosion sequence?

As the damaged tablet starts to corrode, the magic keeping the museum exhibits alive starts to die. There’s a close-up shot of the golden tablet on the wall of the museum, in which we see the corrosion texture crawling over its surface. The camera flies down on to the surface of the tablet to an almost macro-photography distance, then follows the decay as it advances. This establishes that the tablet is “dying” from this disease-like corrosion.

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How did you go about creating the corrosion shots?

We began by building an accurate CG model of the practical tablet used on set: a golden slab with nine square sections engraved with Egyptian hieroglyphics. The squares rotate on spindles, like an ancient abacus. We knew we’d need to get extremely close to the model, seeing the fine scuffing of the polished gold surface and the more complex detail of the corroded parts, so we went through a detailed texturing process. Additional texturing work was required for the corroded version.

Next we created the intricate, organic movement of the corrosion’s green, glowing edge as it progresses over the tablet’s surface. The animated leading edge was created in 2D, using fractal noise tools. We turned the resulting animation into masks that were UV-mapped back on to the geometry. We also used the masks to displace the geometry in the 3D render, giving volume and depth to the edge of the corroded section of tablet.

For shots which didn’t need to be animated, our solution was to object-track the tablet used in the shot. We created a predetermined set of directional lighting passes, texture passes and utility passes based on a generic lighting set up and rendered using V-Ray. It was then up to the compositors to balance the lights to make the new corroded tablet fit into each shot.

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb - tablet corrosion VFX by Cinesite

Did working on Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb teach you anything new?

We learned that, given a body of shots that were quite similar and by using the right methodology, it’s possible to deliver a fairly large number of shots with just one person handling the lighting, and a small compositing team.


Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb - visual effects by Method Studios

Method Studios – VFX Supervisor, Chad Wiebe

How did you get involved with the show, and how many shots did Method Studios deliver?

I’d worked with Method’s VFX producer, Genevieve West, on several Fox films prior to this, so we were confident we’d be the right fit for the Fox team, including the production VFX supervisor, Erik Nash. We delivered 209 shots, over an eight-month post schedule, with a crew of around 70 people.

Watch Method Studios’ VFX breakdown reel from Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb:

What was your main contribution to the film?

Our animation supervisor, Erik de Boer, has extensive experience with creature animation – he worked on Life of Pi and The Maze Runner – so we were interested in continuing to build our animation and creature repertoire. For that reason, we focused on the sequence where the lion statues in London’s Trafalgar Square come to life, and the scene in which Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) and his gang battle Xiangliu, a nine-headed snake creature. We also contributed shots involving Jed and Octavius (Owen Wilson and Steven Coogan), including the scene in the ducts, and where they’re watching kittens wrestling on YouTube.

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb - Trafalgar Square lions VFX by Method Studios

How did you go about bringing the lions of Trafalgar Square to life?

During the London shoot, we were able to photograph the actual lion statues in many different lighting and weather conditions. This gave us texture and modelling reference, which proved immensely helpful. Together with what was shot on the day using the production’s Red cameras, that got us off to a fast start in building the lion assets.

What was your approach to animating these huge statues?

It was an interesting challenge. We wanted to respect their original scale and weight, but for shots where they chase a flashlight and wrestle, they also needed to have a kitten-like appeal and playfulness. So we keyed off the YouTube kitten clip, as well as a ton of real lion footage. To preserve the sculpted look of the animals, we skipped dynamic and harmonic skin sims for a more controlled blendshape approach in the face and body. By doing this, we matched the look established in the previous movies.

The lions’ manes needed a custom deformation toolset, created by James Jacobs and his creature team. By simulating underlying strips of geometry representing the mane, we were able to have sections sliding over top of each other and driving the deformations of the single mesh, creating more complex deformations than traditional weighting would have allowed.

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Did you take a similar approach with the Xiangliu?

There was a physical build of the nine-headed snake coiled in a sleeping pose. This was scanned and used as the basis for our CG build. It was also used in-shot, which proved to be extremely useful lighting reference.

From an animation standpoint – as well as visual – we wanted a creature that not only stayed true to its statuesque origin, but also fully reflected the real-world attributes that make snakes such amazing creatures.

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb - Xiangliu VFX by Method Studios

How did you choreograph the action?

The sequence was extremely well-thought out – we were provided post-vis which was very close to what the director wanted from a blocking standpoint. Using this as reference, our animators were able to move full steam ahead with a clear target, pushing out some amazing animation in a very short amount of time.

From there, our lighting team got a very clear indication of where our creatures would be in the environment. This was a big plus, due to the challenges associated with trying to light nine reflective, tubular shapes all competing for screen space. For example, we noticed very early on that the most minor position change of one snake would have a dramatic impact on the lighting and reflections of all the others.

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb - Xiangliu VFX by Method Studios

Animating nine heads simultaneously must have been quite a challenge.

The key for the snake animation was finding the balance between managing the shapes with animation controls, and maximising the usability of the rig for the animators – making sure it didn’t become too heavy or counter-intuitive. We wanted strong, broad shapes with solid, serpentine motion, and a real sense that the heads were driven and lifted all the way back from the tail, which was connected to the sculpture’s base. Our creature TD, Paul Jordan, created a very successful rig for this that allowed us to design the overall motion on one level, and to twist and sculpt on several lower layers.

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb - Xiangliu VFX by Method Studios

Tell us more about the rig.

The big challenge was creating a rig which would allow extreme poses and actions without compromising the look of the snake or overly distorting its geometry. We also had to come up with a way to have the snakes’ scales behave in a realistic manner. Paul developed a follicle system that would allow each scales to slide over the next. That way, they stayed as true as possible to their original size and shape.

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb - Jed & Octavius VFX by Method Studios

Did you bring anything new to the miniature characters of Jed and Octavius?

One interesting new bit of technology we employed was “focus stacking”, which created a much more realistic marriage between Jed and Octavius and their full-size environment.

When shooting macro-photography with traditional cameras, you typically have a very narrow depth of field. When compositing actors, this can typically result in a visual mismatch. For Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, we created our background plates by shooting footage in which we racked focus from a locked-off camera. We then compiled all the in-focus areas into one image. This allowed us to do something that’s traditionally not possible in miniature photography: create an infinite depth of field, and then adjust it to taste.

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By this process of focus stacking, we were able to control and match the two opposing elements, allowing us to make the backgrounds look as though they’d been shot through tiny cameras in scale with our miniature characters. It also allowed us to preserve all the great detail you get from shooting real-life objects instead of building giant props, which can create its own visual challenges.


Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb - visual effects by Digital Domain

Digital Domain – VFX Supervisor, Lou Pecora

How many shots did Digital Domain deliver, and which sequences do they feature in?

Digital Domain executed around 340 shots. I started on the show after principal photography had wrapped in late summer, so we did this volume of work between August and November.

We were lucky enough to get the Escher Tablet Pursuit sequence, the Pompeii diorama eruption, the Greek statue encounter, and a smattering of complex 2D split screens with double the Stiller!

Let’s begin with the volcanic eruption. How close to reality did you stick?

For Pompeii, we studied lots of real volcano eruption footage to figure out which parts we could keep and which we had to lose. For instance, most of the real oozing lava we studied didn’t flow nearly fast enough to be as threatening as the sequence required, but the eruptive elements spewing out of the caldera were more true to life.

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb - volcanic eruption VFX by Digital Domain

Many films have used the splitscreen trick to duplicate actors. How did you go about twinning Ben Stiller?

For the “Ben and Ben” splitscreen work, we went back and watched Multiplicity. There’s some phenomenal work in there – work that definitely still holds up today.

The scenes where there are multiple Michael Keatons in the shots at the same time that don’t interact were really good; however, two shots in particular stood out to me. The first is where Michael Keaton’s character takes a cigarette out of a clone’s mouth, who then blows smoke back at him. The second is the scene where the original Doug keeps refilling clone #4’s glass with Coke. These shots where they interact with each other, and interact with the same objects, were the most impressive, so that’s what we aimed for.

We have a few places where Ben’s Larry character and his Laa character touch each other – patting each other on the back, touching faces, and so on. That really sells the effect, and it definitely was as difficult to execute as you would imagine.

Can you describe the Escher Tablet Pursuit sequence?

The whole process of bringing this piece to life was one of the more interesting challenges I’ve faced in my career. In the sequence, three live-action characters end up in the M.C. Escher lithograph called “Relativity”. In this world of multiple gravities, a chase ensues with the characters all trying desperately to lay their hands on the tablet.

How did you set about transferring M.C. Escher’s mind-bending artwork on to the screen?

We studied the original artwork and other Escher pieces to make sure that the etch treatment we put on the photographic elements was authentic to his style. Taking a static piece of lithography and turning it into a cinematic experience brought all kinds of things into consideration – things one would never think about. For instance, how would we deal with motion blur, depth of field, and moving shadows? These were all design details that required lots of trial and error.

Then, based on solid previs from Proof, our VFX supervisor, Swen Gillberg, shot all of the action on a small greenscreen stage in Burnaby, Vancouver.

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb - visual effects by Digital Domain

How did you make your CG set look like the original lithography artwork?

We came up with complex shaders that dynamically resized the pattern density based on factors such as distance to camera and size in frame. Our CG supervisor, Tim Nassauer, devised a very clever way to achieve this by using multiple interlocking patterns that would increase the density and fidelity of the etch lines as the surface moved closer to camera.

Studying the Escher artwork taught us that shadows aren’t just darker areas due to light being occluded, but rather a more dense arrangement of the lithographic pattern that’s present in surrounding areas. This led us to render a full set of the denser pattern to be revealed through shadow mattes; these were either generated in the scene, rotoscoped or keyed from the plate photography. Our compositing department, supervised by Francis Puthanangadi, was ultimately tasked with blending these various density passes to attain the appropriate line density and fidelity.

It sounds like a highly technical challenge. Did you also have to make a lot of artistic judgement calls?

VFX always involves a balance of technical acumen and artistry. This sequence definitely provided its share of technical challenges, but most of the journey was spent making artistic decisions and creative calls.

The etch treatment applied to the photography, for example, was very finicky and sensitive, depending on how large or small something was in frame. There was no real formula for it, only artistic instincts on what looked right: pattern angles; how many different sections we would need; how fine or coarse the pattern should be; how heavily the effect should be printed in. These would all have to be dialed in on a case-by-case basis, sometimes animating them throughout a shot if we were going from wide to close or vice versa.

Did the same apply to more conventional effects such as motion blur?

Dealing with motion blur, depth of field, and so on is usually very straightforward. In this case, however, we had to make a lot of artistic calls on how they should be handled. Do we put the etch on before the defocus and let the lines get blurry? Do we let the etch treatment get motion blurred, or do we put the motion blur on before the treatment? There were many variables and decisions to make along the way and our comp lead, Brian Rust, and look-dev artist, Joe Spano, ran through the gamut of these variables – and many more – to achieve what ultimately became the look for the sequence.

For the most part, there’s some semblance of reality that one can use as a metric to see if an effect looks “right”. The design-oriented nature of this work made that more difficult, as we had to rely so much more on our far less concrete artistic intuitions. In the end, that was what made it so satisfying as it all came together.

Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb - Jed & Octavius VFX by Digital Domain

What new personal challenges did this show set for you?

The bulk of my experience is in compositing – I was a compositing supervisor for years before becoming a VFX supervisor.  So I never had much exposure to animation – particularly character animation. This show gave me a lot more experience in that arena.

Working closely with our animation director, Phil Cramer, and animation lead, Frankie Stellato, I was exposed to both traditional keyframe hand-animated work, as well as Digital Domain’s new cutting edge Direct Drive facial animation system. This was a fantastic learning opportunity for me that I took full advantage of.

I was extraordinarily lucky to be a part of the fantastic team that put this film together. Across the entire spectrum – the executives and internal team at Fox, director Shawn Levy, production VFX supervisor Erik Nash, the entire team at Digital Domain, and our counterparts at other VFX facilities – I was lucky enough to get to work with old friends … and make some new ones as well. For me, the most important part of a show is the team of people I’m working with on a daily basis. We spend most of our waking lives at work in this business, and long weeks away from home, and to be surrounded by people who are supportive, collaborative, creative and downright fun to be around makes going to work every day a thoroughly enjoyable and satisfying experience.


Special thanks to Jonny Vale, Karl Williams, Adam Brown, Melissa Knight, Ellen Pasternack and Rita Cahill. Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb photographs TM and © 2014 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.  All rights reserved. Not for sale or duplication.

ADI Q&A – Cinefex 140 Extract

ADI Q&A with Tom Woodruff Jr. and Alec Gillis, by Joe Fordham - Cinefex 140

This final peek at our latest magazine issue, Cinefex 140, invites you into the company of Tom Woodruff Jr. and Alec Gillis., co-founders of Amalgamated Dynamics, Incorporated.

Woodruff and Gillis discuss their backgrounds in the burgeoning 1980s creature effects industry, early assignments at Stan Winston Studio, and their creative partnership that has spanned 25 years, encompassing Death Becomes Her, Starship Troopers, Tremors, multiple Alien films, and more recently Fire City: The Interpreter of Signs and Harbinger Down — a pair of independent monster movies, wrought with passion and crowdfunded resources, that mark Woodruff’s and Gillis’ feature directing debuts.

In this extract from Joe Fordham’s Q&A, the guys from ADI describe how their experiences on the 2011 prequel The Thing encouraged them to set up their popular YouTube channel:

Alec Gillis: The Thing director, Matthijs van Heijningen, was very interested in maintaining a practical foundation, but at some point they made the decision to replace the work. People often say, ‘You guys must have been heartbroken,’ and so on. Of course we were disappointed, because we thought we had done very good work, staying true to what Bottin and Carpenter had set up, while acknowledging the director’s and the studio’s needs.

Tom Woodruff Jr.: That was the impetus for going to YouTube. We were seeing a lot of negative comments online saying, ‘ADI screwed up The Thing.’ We felt that we’d done our best work, and so we thought, ‘Let’s put up some YouTube videos.’ We started with a Green Goblin prosthetic makeup test that we had created for Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man. That got 50,000 hits in two weeks. Then we posted tests of our ‘hemocyte’ makeups that we did for Ridley Scott’s unmade I Am Legend. There are now 160 videos online – some effects that got cut from films, some behind the scenes.

Read the complete Q&A in Cinefex 140, which also features Interstellar, The Zero Theorem and Exodus: Gods and Kings.

All content copyright © 2014 Cinefex LLC. All rights reserved.

Exodus: Gods and Kings – Cinefex 140 Extract

"Exodus: Gods and Kings" - article by Jody Duncan, Cinefex 140

Here’s the third sampler from our latest magazine edition, Cinefex 140. In Exodus: Gods and Kings, Christian Bale, Sigourney Weaver and Aaron Paul star in director Ridley Scott’s retelling of the biblical account of Moses leading the Israelites out of bondage in Egypt.

Spain and Mexico stood in for Egypt throughout filming. Double Negative provided visual effects to imbue the film with a grandeur and epic scale befitting its source material, with additional effects support from MPC, The Senate, Method Studios and The Third Floor.

In this exclusive extract from Jody Duncan’s in-depth article, Gods and Kings, visual effects supervisor Peter Chiang talks about the creation of the film’s ancient locations:

Whether on stage or on location, sets were surrounded with greenscreen, enabling the crews at Double Negative and MPC – the show’s main vendors – as well as Lola, Method Studios and Peerless to composite in 1,300 BC vistas of the Nile Delta, the Pyramids and Mount Sinai in the distance. “We researched the time period extensively,” said visual effects supervisor Peter Chiang. “I also went up to Luxor and took a lot of photographs of existing temples and other architecture.

“Of course, the buildings as they are now don’t reflect the period because of decay and wearing. So we had to imagine what those structures would have looked like when they had just been built, and then introduce a bit of wearing and texture to keep them from looking fake. We drew a fine line between ‘new’ and what people understand as 1,300 BC architecture.”

Illustrations by concept illustrators working with Arthur Max and supervising art director Marc Homes developed the look and color palettes of the ancient world, infusing Memphis with a traditional sandstone look, and the newer, more modern Pi-Ramses with blacks and golds.

Read the complete article in Cinefex 140, which also features “Interstellar”, “The Zero Theorem” and a Q&A with Amalgamated Dynamics.

All content copyright © 2014 Cinefex LLC. All rights reserved.

Smaug Versus Colbert

Smaug in motion capture gear ready for his encounter with comedian Stephen Colbert

Smaug in motion capture gear ready for his encounter with comedian Stephen Colbert

Viewers of Comedy Central’s satirical news show The Colbert Report have long been aware that the series’ deadpan Conservative commentator, comedian Stephen Colbert, is a die-hard fan of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Colbert has famously called out filmmaker Peter Jackson on numerous points of Middle-earth lore, and his Tolkien pop-quiz smack-downs with actor and fellow Tolkien fan James Franco are legendary. Jackson and company welcomed the witticisms and scholarly insights by rewarding Colbert with a cameo appearance in The Desolation of Smaug as a ‘Laketown Spy,’ and Colbert reciprocated by emceeing a Hobbit panel at San Diego Comic-Con earlier this summer.

Last Thursday, in the run-up to the North American opening of Jackson’s final Middle-earth chapter, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Colbert one-upped every talk show host in town, and amazed audiences worldwide, by inviting the dragon Smaug, mighty guardian of the dwarf kingdom of Erebor, to his Comedy Central studio as a talk show guest.

While roaming the halls of Weta Digital in preparation for our coverage of The Battle of the Five Armies in our upcoming Spring edition, Cinefex caught up with Weta Digital visual effects supervisor Matt Aitken who, with senior visual effects supervisor Joe Letteri, led a small army of artisans responsible for bringing Tolkien’s fearsome firedrake to the small screen.

CINEFEX: So, Matt, how far in advance did you know about Smaug’s Colbert Report appearance before the broadcast date?

MATT AITKEN: We had a whole two weeks advance notice on that one. I think Peter Jackson was being kind to us, letting us finish the film. From what I gathered, he and Stephen Colbert cooked this thing up between them. And they had the dialog recorded for a few weeks. My understanding is that Benedict was in a sound booth in London doing some final dialog replacement for Smaug quite late in the day. And at the end of that session, they tagged on the voice recording for the Colbert Report interview. The way they did it was Stephen telephoned Benedict while he was in the booth, and they recorded the session on an iPhone to give us performance reference video of him recording Smaug’s side of the dialog. They essentially ad-libbed the interview and went through it two or three times. I think there was the basis of a script, but there was a lot of ad-libbing going on, as well. I don’t think it will ever get seen, but that video footage was gold, seeing Benedict performing and then cracking up between lines.

CINEFEX: I noticed that Smaug was limited to just his head and one hand peeking into Colbert’s studio – was that also a mercy call by Pete, to help visual effects?

MATT AITKEN: Well that was a combination of things. It was about how much of Smaug could we practically see in the context of that studio space. We didn’t want him you appear too small, by cramming him into that tiny space. We also didn’t have time to build a whole studio interior to accommodate all of Smaug’s interactions. We just built the part of the stage that you see in the single-shots on Smaug, that was the extent of our digital set.

CINEFEX: You built a digital version of the Colbert studio?

MATT AITKEN: We did. Comedy Central sent us some stills. We digitally modeled some of the props that are sitting on the shelves that Smaug busts through, the kinds of thing that Colbert has collected over the years — he has his Captain America shield, and various other bits and pieces. We included that in the wreckage of where Smaug busts through. We had to have that much built, because he busts his way in, and we had to do some destruction around that. It was a lot of fun to do. And the Colbert Report team was great to work with. They are a really great bunch of people.

Smaug's Eye - Image property of Weta Digital and Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc

CINEFEX: How ever did you put all that together, with the animation, in two weeks?

MATT AITKEN: Well, Pete presented it to us the day after we delivered our final shots on Five Armies. My other fellow visual effects supervisors, Eric Saindon and Chris White, were already otherwise engaged, and so I got to pick it up. I broke it out into shots. It turned out to be about six minutes of character animation, about 50 shots, and so we just went wide with it. We got all the animators who had been working on Smaug all year and gave them a couple of shots each, and that is how we got it done. They did fantastic work. After rendering The Hobbit feature footage in stereo at 48 frames per second, rendering at high definition TV resolution at 24 frames per second was a breeze. The Weta Digital render wall was wide open, so we were able to take over the whole render wall to get it rendered in time. We shipped it at the very last minute, and I was a little bit nervous to see how it played out. But it played out just great, and it seems to have been incredibly well received.

CINEFEX: It certainly did. And we got see a new side to Smaug’s personality. I think he’s a natural for Hollywood.

MATT AITKEN: Yeah, exactly! We were very pleased it went over so well.

Thanks to David Gougé, Amy Minty and Alison Branch. The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey photograph copyright © 2012 by Warner Bros. Pictures and courtesy of Weta Digital.

The Zero Theorem – Cinefex 140 Extract

"The Zero Theorem - Nowhere Man" by Joe Fordham - Cinefex 140

In this second peek into our brand new issue, Cinefex 140, we look at The Zero Theorem, in which neurotic computer genius (Christoph Waltz) – employed by a vast futuristic company named Mancrom – attempts to find a mathematical formula that may lead to the meaning of life, but instead falls in love with a beautiful avatar (Mélanie Thierry) and slowly loses his mind.

Filmmaker Terry Gilliam brings his idiosyncratic visual flair to create a nightmarish technological world and phantasmagoric landscapes working with production designer David Warren, special effects supervisor Nick Allder, and visual effects supervisors Felix Lepadatu, Jonah Loop and Fredrik Nord at LenscareFX, Haymaker, The Chimney Pot Group and Bold Turtle Productions.

In the following extract from Joe Fordham’s in-depth article, Nowhere Man, Gilliam and special effects supervisor discuss the creation of one of the film’s most dramatic sets:

“The script description of the Neural Net Mainframe was a slick, high-tech room typical of sci-fi films,” Terry Gilliam recalled. “I thought, ‘Nah,’ and we went looking for locations. I had seen a photograph of a disused steel factory a couple of hours outside Bucharest. We went there, and in the middle of this room was this great round ridiculous-looking blast furnace that had a huge hole in its side. It was a horrible, awful thing, and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s much more fun!’ They talked me out of shooting there – we would have been there in the middle of winter, so it would have been a bit mad. And Dave Warren built a set of just more than a half round section of this structure. Everything else was greenscreen. It was my version of Metropolis.”

The Mainframe set consisted of a 1/5-horizontal slice of a central cylinder, with a gantry, walkway and multi-screen workstation. “We had colored liquids containing UV pigment bubbling through the set,” said special effects supervisor Nick Allder. “We lit those to give Terry some in-camera interactive glows. We also rigged a large mechanical cylinder that came out of the Mainframe wall like a big piston. That was on a carriage, and a pneumatic mechanism pushed that out, pulled it back in and rotated it.”

Read the complete article in Cinefex 140, which also features Interstellar, Exodus: Gods and Kings and a Q&A with Amalgamated Dynamics.

All content copyright © 2014 Cinefex LLC. All rights reserved.

Interstellar – Cinefex 140 Extract

"Interstellar - That Our Feet May Leave" by Jody Duncan - Cinefex 140

Issue 140 of Cinefex magazine contains in-depth articles on the visual effects of three of this year’s big movies, as well as a special Q&A with practical effects experts Tom Woodruff Jr. and Alec Gillis. Today and tomorrow, we’re giving you exclusive tasters from every article in the issue.

First up is Christopher Nolan’s epic space adventure Interstellar. The visual effects for this acclaimed film run the whole gamut, from New Deal Studios’ traditional minatures through to Double Negative dynamic space simulations – which were so sophisticated that visual effects supervisor Paul Franklin and scientific consultant Kip Thorne ended up presenting academic papers on what they’d learned while making the film to NASA’s Astrophysics Committee.

In this extract from Jody Duncan’s extensive article, That Our Feet May Leave, Nolan and Franklin discuss the methodology behind those all-important spacecraft shots:

The majority of shots of the spacecraft in space were realized with miniatures built and shot by New Deal Studios. Christopher Nolan is atypical among current directors of big-budget films in his preference for miniature photography, and nearly all of his films have featured miniature effects. “I believe that the audience has an absolute ability to discern animation from photography,” Nolan explained. “However sophisticated the animation, the audience eye can see the difference between something that is constructed from the animator’s mind and something that is real, that has light bouncing off of it and going through the lens of a real camera. There’s a wonderful quality to that.”

“Chris felt that this movie demanded the sort of tactile reality you get when you shoot a physical miniature, rather than attempting to do a ship entirely in CG,” added visual effects supervisor Paul Franklin. “We still created CG spacecraft for the atmospheric entry sequences and for a sequence where you see a spacecraft being swept up into a wave; but the bulk of our spacecraft shots in space were achieved with miniatures.”

Read the complete article in Cinefex 140, which also features The Zero Theorem, Exodus: Gods and Kings and a Q&A with Amalgamated Dynamics.

All content copyright © 2014 Cinefex LLC. All rights reserved.

The Visual Effects of Paddington

Paddington - visual effects by Framestore

Paddington is more than just a bear. He’s a British icon. Yet, as established in Michael Bond’s original children’s book of 1958, this polite-but-accident-prone little fellow started out as a stranger to the country’s shores, having arrived at Paddington Station (from which he took his name) from Darkest Peru. Shortly thereafter, he was adopted by the Brown family … and in time by an entire nation.

More than twenty books later, Bond continues to publish his Paddington stories, ensuring the continuing popularity of his marmalade-loving bear. Over the years, Paddington has been illustrated by artists including Peggy Fortnum, Fred Banbery and Ivor Wood, but it wasn’t until 1975 that he sprang into animated life in the BBC TV series Paddington.

Now he’s hit the big screen in Studio Canal’s feature adaptation Paddington, directed by Paul King. The film’s 760 visual effects shots – 570 of which feature Paddington himself – were delivered by Framestore, with a 350-strong team spread across their London and Montreal studios.

Paddington meets the Brown family

“Paddington” was shot at Elstree Studios and on location in London and Costa Rica, which doubles for Peru. “The film is a kind of a love letter to London. It’s always raining, in contrast to sunny Peru, which lends a huge amount to the mood and the visuals.” – Andy Kind, VFX supervisor, Framestore London.

The Essence of Paddington

One of the biggest challenges facing the Framestore team was introducing Paddington to a global moviegoing audience, while remaining true to the well-established character loved by generations of British readers.

“It was a big responsibility to find a photorealistic design for a character that people have so clear in their minds,” said Framestore’s animation supervisor Pablo Grillo. “We were keen to bring Paddington into the real world so he would sit into the live action and be easy for people to connect with. We wanted him to be anatomically correct, which meant we needed more detail compared with the simplicity of the original illustrations, which often had just two dots for eyes. We had to think about things like his wet nose, teeth and muzzle, but still make sure that what we created carried that simple essence of the original Paddington.”

As well as referencing the original illustrations, the Framestore team also took cues from his television incarnation. “In the stop-motion BBC TV series, Paddington would often remain quite still before doing something that took you by surprise, and we tried to maintain that spirit in the way we crafted the performance. Rather than filling every moment with movement and unnecessary detail, we would just run a little wind through the fur to keep him alive and really hold some quiet moments.”

Watch the featurette Paddington: From Page to Screen:

To learn more about what it took to bring Paddington to the screen, I spoke to Christian Kaestner, VFX supervisor and Head of 2D at Framestore in Montreal.

Paddington – VFX Q&A with Christian Kaestner

How did you get involved with Paddington?

Paddington was a project that had been started while I was still working in our London office. I’d worked previously with Andy Kind and Pablo Grillo on Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and it was the combination of a great character project with a fantastic team that made me want to get my hands on this. I’d just finished Edge of Tomorrow in Montreal when the opportunity came up.

What was your general approach to the visual effects?

A few years back, we started working closely with the director, Paul King, and his team to shape and develop Paddington’s film debut for the big screen. Countless sketches, animation and render tests were part of our early involvement with this adorable, furry little bear. In our London office Pablo and Andy spearheaded the creative development, assisted with the shoot planning and of course the VFX shoot supervision. Additionally, Tim Webber got involved in the shoot as second unit director.

After the filming had wrapped, we started to narrow down the edit by blocking out scenes based on previs that we’d worked out with Paul King. At this stage both our London and Montreal facilities were involved with layout, blocking and animation. At the same time were also finessing the character and photorealistic look of Paddington.

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Pablo Grillo talks about the challenges of working with such an iconic character. Did you feel the pressure too?

Bringing any CG character to life in a believable way is always a challenge, but taking on such a famous, well-loved and established character like Paddington makes it exponentially harder. We obviously wanted to stay true to the character and not create something from scratch that the audience wouldn’t be able recognise.

At the same time, there was no live-action version of Paddington that we could match to. The creative process became an in depth exercise in character development, working closely with the director and even Paddington’s creator, Michael Bond, to ensure that we translated this wonderful character to the big screen to everyone’s satisfaction. We are very pleased and proud of how we were able to bring Paddington to life.

How closely did you work with practical and special effects on set to integrate the animated character into the scene?

Framestore worked very closely with Paul King, the director of photography, Erik Wilson, and the art department to ensure we could really integrate Paddington into every scene. We carefully looked at all the shots and the vision that Paul had for the scene. We discussed in detail what was the intention and how we could combine the live-action photography and CG character most efficiently.

This obviously was a huge benefit for us and the project because we could plan carefully, helping the budget distribution. We could bring all our experience to the table and work out how we might save a little here and there, enabling us to concentrate on sequences or shots that were really important to Paul.

Paul’s vision for Paddington was hardly a full CG visual effects extravaganza – quite the opposite. We wanted to be clever about the shoot, get as much as we could in camera and focus our visual effects efforts on the star of movie: Paddington.

One of the great examples of combining practical on-set work with Paddington’s character is when Paddington is licking Judy’s face in the kitchen. It was much more visually effective for us to shoot the licking of the face as a practical effect and animate to Judy’s performance, rather than creating this from scratch in CG.

Pablo Grillo creeps on set to wipe a paintbrush the size and shape of Paddington’s tongue across the face of Judy Brown (Madeleine Harris), leaving the perfect, slobber-like mark.

Before and after. Pablo Grillo creeps on set to wipe a paintbrush the size and shape of Paddington’s tongue across the face of Judy Brown (Madeleine Harris), leaving the perfect, slobber-like mark.

So did you keep CG environments to a minimum?

I wouldn’t go as far as saying there was no digital matte painting or CG work in the movie, but for the most part environments and set augmentation were supportive in nature and hopefully as invisible as possible. We built partial medium-distance CG for some of the Natural History Museum environment and combined it with digital matte paintings of the London skyline. Additionally, we used Nuke’s particle system to dress in the snow here and there, to enhance the on-set snow and provide consistency throughout the sequence.

How much were you affected by the recasting of the voice talent from Colin Firth to Ben Whishaw?

Obviously, any creative change has – and should have – an impact on the final visual result. Paddington’s character with regard to his live-action appearance had been long established by the time the voice changed from Colin to Ben, and there was never any intent to change Paddington’s character drastically. Design and the core appearance were not affected too much, although obviously there were new characteristics we had to adapt to regarding performance and pace. But they were slight alterations rather than drastic changes.

What’s your favourite sequence from the film?

There are so many lovely sequences of Paddington in this movie, but one of my personal favourites is the “Lost and Found” scene on the station platform after Paddington arrives in London. It’s the sequence where Paddington first meets the Browns … and a pigeon. There’s so much attention to detail in this sequence, because not only does it further establish Paddington’s character, but it also really establishes the bond between Paddington and Mrs Brown – and of course the audience.

How did you go about putting the “Lost and Found” sequence together?

We began by blocking out the sequence to establish the rhythm and feel. It had to be emotional, yet maintain the wit and humour of the rest of the movie. We spent quite a lot of time getting the timings right – hitting the beats of the sequence – before we went into more detailed performance animation.

Once all the timings and beats were right we went into more detailed facial animation to really establish the emotional context of the scene. The audience can clearly follow the thought process and emotions that Paddington goes through, it’s a bit sad and funny at the same time, which really helps to build a connection with the viewer.

In this sequence we also feature an additional CG character that appears throughout the movie – the pigeon that Paddington interacts with. The pigeon doesn’t speak and performs only through its actions, yet there’s a clear conversation between Paddington and the pigeon before the Brown arrive.

Marmalade-loving Paddington tears open an orange

Paddington rips apart an orange. The outside of the fruit is CG to facilitate interaction with the animated bear, but the interior is based on live action footage shot in Framestore’s capture lab. The two sources were combined in Nuke, with FX juice and spray completing the shot.

What did you learn from working on Paddington?

That creating a believable live-action CG character remains an incredibly hard thing to achieve. But it’s still just as rewarding to see final result on the big screen.

In this age of motion-capture, it’s worth pointing out that Paddington was entirely keyframe animated, and I think the performance is amazing. We had a lot of reference from the voice talent, performer Javier Marzan, Paul King and Pablo Grillo to help us bring Paddington to life. This allowed for complete control over Paddington’s acting, enabling us to direct every little detail of his performance.

Special thanks to Stephanie Bruning and Rob Goodway. Paddington pictures copyright © 2014 by StudioCanal Limited and courtesy of Framestore.

Now Showing – Cinefex 140

Cinefex 140 - From the Editor's Desk

Cinefex 140 is here! The latest issue of the leading magazine for visual effects professionals and enthusiasts is now available, and features behind-the-scenes analysis of the latest films by leading moviemakers.

Headlining this quarter’s edition is Interstellar, Christopher Nolan’s grand space adventure starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway and Jessica Chastain. You won’t want to miss Jody Duncan’s in-depth article, That Our Feet May Leave, which explores every corner of the film’s remarkable suite of effects, from Scott Fisher’s on-set special effects, through the various practical effects by New Deal Studios, to Double Negative‘s stunning visual effects.

Jody’s second article examines the visual effects of Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings. This latest retelling of the story of Moses in Egypt stars Christian Bale, Sigourney Weaver and Aaron Paul, and boasts spectacular effects sequences led by Double Negative, with support from MPC, The Senate, Method Studios and The Third Floor.

Our third article is Joe Fordham’s Nowhere Man, which analyses the latest film from idiosyncratic filmmaker Terry Gilliam: The Zero Theorem. This mind-bending fantasy about a neurotic computer genius (Christoph Waltz) who falls in love with a beautiful avatar (Mélanie Thierry) is a feast for the eyes, thanks to the remarkable work of production designer David Warren, special effects supervisor Nick Allder, and visual effects supervisors Felix Lepadatu, Jonah Loop and Fredrik Nord at LenscareFX, Haymaker, The Chimney Pot Group and Bold Turtle Productions.

Last up is Joe’s Q&A session with Tom Woodruff Jr. and Alec Gillis, veteran practical effects specialists whose creative partnership at their company Amalgamated Dynamics, Incorporated has spanned 25 years. Tom and Alec talk to Joe about the early days, when they worked on films including Starship Troopers, Tremors, and multiple Alien films, and comes right up to date with their respective directorial debuts on the crowdfunded features Fire City: The Interpreter of Signs and Harbinger Down.

So what does Cinefex editor-in-chief Jody Duncan have to say about the movies covered in our latest issue? Let’s find out:

Jody Duncan – From The Editor’s Desk

It is always particularly gratifying for me to work on an issue in which we’re covering movies or filmmakers about which I am passionate. This was such an issue.

Having written a book on The Dark Knight Trilogy with Cinefex associate publisher Janine Pourroy a couple of years ago, the respect and admiration I’d had for Christopher Nolan ever since seeing the remarkable Memento grew to cosmic proportions. I’ve never been a ‘fan-boy,’ (which, I believe, has been an advantage in my job as editor of Cinefex), but I have some fan-boy inclinations when it comes to Nolan. He is not only a brilliantly original writer and director, he is – by all accounts – a man of exceedingly fine character.

So, my excitement level rose at the prospect of covering Nolan’s Interstellar. I knew that I would, most likely, interview him, as he’s been generous with Cinefex in that regard. I knew that there would be miniatures involved, which makes for compelling text and images. And I knew that the movie itself would be interesting and different. The man and the movie exceeded my expectations.

Issue 140 offered cherries atop the delicious Interstellar sundae. A Q&A with Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff, Jr. of Amalgamated Dynamics, Incorporated by Joe Fordham was, again, a chance to talk about practical effects. Having interviewed both Alec and Tom numerous times in the past, I knew they would make for a fascinating conversation. They did not disappoint.

Ridley Scott is another filmmaker I admire tremendously, and I got to see him in action as ‘presenter’ at an early press screening of selected scenes from Exodus: Gods and Kings. He encouraged us to gather in the middle of the theater, and then he sat on the arm of an aisle seat, very laid back, very un-showmanlike, and gave pithy and funny little introductions to each scene we were about to view. He charmed us all.

Finally, Issue 140 features coverage of the fascinating Terry Gilliam’s latest project, The Zero Theorem. Joe Fordham interviewed Gilliam, and his sparkling commentary runs throughout Joe’s story.

Nolan, Scott, Gilliam, Gillis, Woodruff. Now there’s a Cinefex issue!

After an introduction like that, I’m sure you’re all ready for launch. So strap yourselves in. The boosters are primed and this sucker is all set to break through the stratosphere. Stow all loose items, turn off your cells and spit out your gum. Are you ready for Cinefex 140? Let’s rock and roll!

VFX Videos of the Week 12-12-14

YardbirdHeading this week’s selection of VFX videos is Yardbird, a short film from Bridle Path Films directed by Michael Spiccia. It stars Mitzi Ruhlmann as young girl Ruby, who in facing up to a gang of scrapyard bullies is forced to exercise her strange and disturbing powers.

Yardbird uses both special and visual effects in the best way possible – to underpin the story without taking centre-stage. SFX are byPaul Norton at Portfire Studios, with VFX provided by Fin Design & Effects (CG supervisors Stuart White & Steve Oakley), Canopy VFX (VFX supervisor Travis Hogg) and Fuel (VFX supervisor Dave Morley):

Home Sweet Home

Here’s another short: the charming animated film Home Sweet Home, by Pierre Clenet, Alejandro Diaz, Romain Mazevet and Stéphane Paccolat. It’s a buddy movie starring two suburban houses which decide to abandon their foundations and explore the world. Some great character work and gorgeous compositions made this a festival favourite, and resulted in its being awarded Best Computer Animated Short Film Award at Siggraph 2014:

Next up is High Quality Capture of Eyes, which describes an improved approach to the motion capture and modelling of those fable windows of the soul. This video is from Disney Research, and was presented as part of a paper at SIGGRAPH Asia 2104. According to the Disney press release: “To faithfully reproduce all the intricacies of the human eye we propose a novel capture system that is capable of accurately reconstructing all the visible parts of the eye: the white sclera, the transparent cornea and the non-rigidly deforming colored iris.”

Most people would agree that faithful representation of the human eye is one of the keys to convincing character animation. If this technique delivers what it promises, it’s another step towards the other side of the uncanny valley:

There are some big old movie trailers doing the rounds this week. First up – and my personal favourite – is The Walk, out next year and starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as tightrope walker Philippe Petit, who famously strung a wire between the twin roofs of the World Trade Center and set out to walk the gap. I’ll be first in line for any new Robert Zemeckis film, and if this stunning teaser is anything to go by, his knack of mythologising both time and location looks set to produce something truly memorable. Visual effects in this trailer are by Atomic Fiction, who are currently hard at work on the rest of the film, with Kevin Baillie supervising:

This second choice is also my favourite of the week (who says I can’t have two favourites?). It’s the teaser trailer for Mad Max: Fury Road. This looks just gloriously insane, with high-octane stunts, a jaw-dropping sandstorm, and Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron looking utterly at home in George Miller’s fetishistic future world. VFX are by Iloura and Method Studios. Me, I can’t wait for May 2015:

Oh, and I have a third favourite trailer (so sue me). This is Inside Out, the upcoming animated feature from Disney Pixar. It’s a scene in which we get to see inside the heads of an average suburban family as tuck into their evening meal. The whole thing is beautifully observed, perfectly executed and laugh-out-loud funny. As my Cinefex colleague Joe Fordham remarked: “Nobody out-Pixars Pixar”:

Rounding out this week’s selection is a rare promotional trailer for Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, courtesy of Eyes on Cinema. With its portentous voiceover, heavy reliance on production art and intriguing slit-scan test footage by Douglas Trumbull, this one’s a truly nostalgic novelty:

That’s all for this week. Last week’s VFX video with the most votes was A Cup of Tea at Engine House VFX. Which is your favourite from this week’s selection? Make your choice right now – or suggest a video of your own – and get voting!